Breaking the Barriers of Leadership

Katie ReisDecember 17, 2016The Soul of GenderFeatures

My grandmother is a petite woman, barely five feet tall, with a tiny face, narrow eyes and a thin, slender figure. She lives a modest life, is not married and shares a house in San Francisco with multiple roommates. She is also the toughest woman I know.

On a regular basis she participates in marches and rallies for peace and justice. Once she lay down in the street to protest the implementation of a nuclear power plant, spending several days in jail afterwards. She raised my dad in an era when most women were not expected to work. She is a strong woman and stands up for what she believes without softness or sentimentality. Her assertiveness and strong will to promote change, as well as her self-confidence, ambition, and decisiveness are characteristics that need to manifest themselves in the next generation of potential female leaders.

What does standing up for what one believes in mean, anyway? For some women, standing up for what they care about may mean sacrificing the opportunity to lead. For instance, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg graduated from Columbia Law School at the top of her class, she often felt drowned out and struggled to find a job in a hostile, male-dominated environment. Other women give up time with their families to fulfill leadership options. So what makes a strong woman?

When I was about four years old my mom decided to quit her job at an accounting firm to spend more time with my twin sister and myself. At that time, she had hired a full-time babysitter and often worked late nights, even though she tried to come home early and devote all her spare time to her two toddlers. When she was at work, she regretted not being at home to spend time with us. And when she came home early from work, she felt she wasn’t committed and involved enough with her job. The choice was difficult as she felt she could not fully commit to both.

Growing up I had friends with full-time babysitters and mothers who worked late. Their love for their kids was no less than my mom’s, but continuing to work was the choice they made in finding a balance between work and family, even when it meant sacrificing time spent with their kids. My mom gave us a great deal of independence and instilled self-reliance; she was always there to guide and motivate us. If not for the hours of patient practice my mother had dedicated to my study of piano in elementary school, I would never have developed the appreciation I have for the instrument today. My mom showed unswerving devotion to us. Today, my motivation is driven by the skills she taught me in every spontaneous moment that we spent together, be it an art project painted in our backyard or a piece of piano music that my mom worked on with me tirelessly until perfected. These were skills I would not have acquired so acutely on my own. My mom has been indispensable to my motivation. The need she felt to be with her kids overshadowed her commitment to her career. Still, she took a path that some mothers today do not choose to take.

Today, many women work full-time jobs while simultaneously raising a family. Women have gained much respect, despite a long history of dominating male leadership, and are equally as represented in higher education as men.

Yet only 10% of women currently hold leadership positions. The percentage of female chief executives in Fortune 500 companies has recently peaked at 4%. Men have dominated our culture and society for centuries, a domination that can be difficult for women to overcome. Why are women not equally accounted for in the ranks of leadership as men? As it turns out, standing up for feminist causes and female leadership is also paired with inevitable sacrifice.

"Only 10% of women currently hold leadership positions."

I return to the struggle that women feel in finding a balance between work and family, making compromises in their lives that men are far less likely to have to make. One reason for this is the traditional societal roles that still hold true, obligating women to be the caregivers and men to be the breadwinners. Is there a choice that women must make between family and work? Can women succeed at doing both? Anne Marie-Slaughter, professor at Princeton University says, that for some women, “having it all” is possible. But for many careers it is impossible to be both the parent and professional that women strive for. I believe that women’s maternal instincts compel them to make compromises in their careers to nurture their children more frequently than men are likely to. For Slaughter, that meant giving up her position as director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department to help her son endure precarious teen years. She says, “I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office — at least not for very long.” Often, having control over their schedule is crucial to women’s ability to balance family and work.

I believe women’s ability to lead is not their lack of ambition or determination, rather it is a choice they make. However, some women who have managed to reach the top while maintaining their home lives say that it is possible to “have it all” and balance work and family, but that women are not working hard enough to get there. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, argues that women are undermining themselves, saying of herself and other women, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” therefore, “men still run the world.”

Are women who lead generally strong-willed and aggressive? Do women lack ambition and self-reliance? These are questions I asked myself when thinking about the soul of gender and how women can transcend the barriers of gender. Our generation of women needs to surpass the limitations of artificial role models who pressure women to epitomize the feminine ideal: tan and extremely thin with perfect skin and makeup, an unattainable feat for women who spend their lives working extraordinarily hard to reach positions of leadership.

What values do men and women prioritize differently? Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article for Atlantic magazine, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” articulates her belief that women cannot possibly maintain an unswerving commitment to both their careers and their family life. The women who have managed to do so and compete equally with men, she contends, are rich or superhuman, and women cannot be blamed for lacking commitment or confidence when they are unable to “rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life.” In contrast, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in her recent book Lean In, challenges that notion. Sandberg asserts that women cannot be mild and sentimental, but need to take on the aggressive and self-promoting qualities exhibited by the men in their lives. However you look at it, it seems that women have to meet a double standard. As author Alice H. Eagly explains, “The double standard that slows women’s rise would work against mediocre women while allowing mediocre men to rise.” Because of the compromises many women feel obligated to make, they often have to work twice as hard to reach the top.

Men need to be part of the conversation, too. In order for change to happen, women need to be incorporated into the existing corporate structure. Women can learn from many of the qualities exemplified by men’s ability to lead, while men can learn from women’s embodiment of transformational leadership, integrating the ideas of others, encouragement, and collaborative leadership that values the group.

One important characteristic that encapsulates the soul of gender is empathy. Although I am generalizing a very broad spectrum of men and women who function in many different ways, I think more female leadership will most likely lead to a more communal and collaborative approach to leadership. On the other hand, empathy and motivation of others is an aspect of leadership that men too often overlook. This raises the question, asked by author Stephanie Coontz, “Can women rise to positions of leadership in our current economic and political climate—a climate that penalizes communal behaviors and rewards self-aggrandizement—without losing the traits that make female leadership so potentially valuable?” The characteristics of strong women do not only mean showing aggression and strong-will. Understanding the value of communal leadership is just as important and women’s contributions could have the potential to change the atmosphere of a political culture.

As with anything, there needs to be a balance. Women and men can learn from each other. For instance, women are more likely to accredit their success to fortune and the help of others rather than giving themselves credit. Women also often come under harsher judgment than men, thus more often avoiding a “command and control behavior because of the backlash they receive,” according to Stephanie Coontz. Would women’s insight about how to lead change and adapt to a more masculine style if more women became leaders or would men adopt some of the attitudes women have about a less domineering approach to leadership?

I have learned from my grandmother that being able to lead does not depend on gender or physique.

Rather, strong will and resolve encapsulate her own notions of someone who is able to lead and make changes they want to see. On the other hand, my mom is an illustration of someone who leads in smaller ways. She makes choices between her job and her family as a quiet leader, shaping my life and bestowing upon me leadership values of discipline, dedication, and determination to blaze my own trail and achieve whatever it is that I want to fulfill.

Katie Reis is a senior in high school. She enjoys running, painting, reading, and doing anything outdoors. She plans to pursue some sort of career in the humanities, as she especially loves history and Latin. Katie will be a freshman at Cornell University next fall.